Day 18

For once I woke with the dawn and was out of camp by 7, a great victory for me, though I was nevertheless still passed by a few hikers, including the sisters from Portland, who said hi as they hiked passed me.  I put on my pack and soldiered on after them, happy that, with less food, the weight on my shoulders was finally somewhat manageable.  Smeagol, cold and barely moving, lay snug in his bed of toilet paper high in my pack, I feared he wouldn’t make it, but if I could get him to my dad that evening, there was a chance.  I had to get to Big Bear that evening.

Bee on a Yucca
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In Flight
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Yucca Pollination
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The sun crested the eastern edge of the canyon quicker than I would’ve liked, and the heat of it was beating down on me already.  My calves and arms had been heavily burned from the previous two days of desert hiking, and I had an open, blistered sore on my right hand, where the skin had peeled then been burned anew.  It hurt, and looked terrible, so at my first stop, the true last crossing of Mission Creek, I filled my water and wrapped my hand with a gauss bandage, looking like I’d taken a grievous wound.  A few other hikers had camped alongside the creek here, including Nails and Butt Plug, and they all commented on my injury, worried that I’d severely hurt myself.  I shrugged it off, but secretly entertained the idea of playing it up to make myself seem cooler.  It was sad, and I wasn’t proud of myself.

Once I’d filled my water, and downed a liter for good measure, I started uphill along what to that point had been the toughest incline of the trail, a 4 mile, 4000+ foot climb to the high ridge leading to Big Bear.

As I left the creek I encountered several stands of Poodle Dog Bush, a notorious and dangerous plant that was all the buzz on the trail up to that point.  Several hikers I’d talked to were worried about the plant, with rumors and stories of its extreme toxicity bolstering everyone’s fears and feeding them to a ridiculous level.  I’d heard stories of whole hands and arms blistered and ruined by a single glancing touch of the plant, of its similarity to poison oak, though more extreme by a measure of exponential degrees.  There were a few hikers who shrugged it off as nothing, I was not one of them.  I danced around every shaggy, smelly bush I came across.  There is a sickly sweet scent to Poodle Dog, distinct and pungent, and the first mile of the up climb was absolutely thick with the stuff.

My legs burned from the exertion of the uphill, but I took the Belgians words to heart and told myself that the mountain was only that from the bottom.  I made concerted pushes, eyeing upcoming ridges and forcing myself to reach them before stopping for a breather.  Along the way I was passed by Speedy, who I’d not seen since Paradise Valley Cafe, and chatted with him for a time.  His knees were sore, he said, and he was planning on a light day, which for him was still close to 20 miles, further than I’d hiked yet to that point.  He left me in his wake, hurt knees and all, and I soldiered on, huffing and puffing and forcing myself up and up, my quadriceps and calves burning, my shoulders and back aching.

The desert canyon transitioned out of the scrubby sagebrush and junipers to gnarly oaks, the twisted trees offering blessed shade from the pounding heat of the morning.  As I climbed, I felt like I was slowly leaving the desert behind, and it spurred me on.  I was ready for the change of scenery, longed for it, and as the pine covered ridge ahead loomed ever closer, I felt buoyed onward, forward, ever upward.

The climb seemed interminable.  I stopped for breakfast under a large oak, the shade welcome, the breeze coming off the mountain cool.  I pulled Smeagol from my pack and looked at him, he was barely alive, it was looking dire for the little guy.  I gave him a little more cheese, and put him back in my pack, hoping that he’d be able to at least suck a little sustenance from the morsel.  He needed milk, I knew, but I had none, and it was the best I could do.

Some two miles into the climb I hit the last spring for the next twelve miles, and filled my bottles, watching my steripen die as I finished sterilizing the water.  There would be no more filtering of water for me before Big Bear, increasing my need to make it there that evening.  I had to reach a road and signal my parents, who were arriving that evening, to come and pick me up, for my sake now as well as my little hitchhiker’s.

Everything was hurting as I crested each successive uphill push, only to see more and more up ahead of me.  The ridgeline was blessedly closer, but seemed so much higher than where I stood.  I checked the elevation chart frequently, and saw myself progressing, albeit slowly, but it didn’t make the climb any less daunting.

Lone Sentinel
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I passed through a wide burn area, and then the oaks transitioned into pine forest, the smells of the trees, the carpet of needles and cones on the ground, the cool air of elevation, all signaling the impending conclusion to the accursed climb.  My calves and hips ached mercilessly, each step was laborious, painful, exhausting.

I reached Mission Flats campground around noon, and collapsed in a heap under the pines.  Speedy was there, had been for an hour or more, similarly resting and eating his lunch.  There was supposedly water nearby, but I still had several liters, and no way of sterilizing it, so I contented myself with a few trail bars and pleasant conversation.  Speedy was hurting, and debating staying at Mission Flats, but I offered him a ride into town if he could push on ten more miles, to the spot I’d arranged for my own pick up.  He was thankful and we agreed to meet up in ten miles so that we could both get a ride into Big Bear.  I was glad to help.

We both left, Speedy quickly overtaking me despite me leaving before him, and I pushed along the now fairly even trail, lined by pine trees and huge boulders, and it seemed I’d stepped into a place completely different from the one I’d started that morning.  Gorgonio loomed over it all, it’s snowy pinnacle poking through the trees around each bend, behind me now, but ever present, the looming reminder of my hike with Susan now just two days away.  Beautiful vistaend, edees greeted me at each turn, San Jacinto and Palm Desert stretching out in the distance to the south, Joshua Tree National Park and Thousand Palms off to the east, and to the north, the rolling San Bernardino Mountains, covered with trees and blocking from sight the town and eponymous lake of Big Bear.

Still Standing
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Along the way, I ran into Nails and Butt Plug and several other hikers, taking a break beneath a large pine, eating and joking.  As I rounded the bend they stopped me and asked me, out of nowhere, where the most interesting place I’d had sex.  I was not expecting the question, but I answered as well as I could in the moment, though my answer, on a picnic table in my favorite national park, paled in comparison to others, including a gas station bathroom, on top of a fast food restaurant, and several other decidedly seedy, unappealing propositions.  It was funny though, and the topics of conversation flew quickly.  I offered my most unfortunate encounter, one involving poison oak in places poison oak should not be, and was quickly beaten there too.  I left the conversation feeling decidedly unadventurous sexually, and wondered if I was too much a prude for my own good.  Of course I hadn’t been completely honest and open, and had held back some important and racier details, so I decided maybe I wasn’t as saintly as I feared.  All in all, it was funny, and one of the better interludes I’ve had on the trail.

The trail rose and fell, but mainly stayed level the rest of the way to the road where I would meet my parents.  There was a minimal uphill, and corresponding downhill, right before the road, but I was making good time, and hit the road around 6:30, with half an hour to spare before my ride was to get there.  Speedy was there, laying on the side of the road, and greeted me as I arrived.  I left my pack near where he lay and decided to wander up and around the “private zoo” just off the trail.

I’d seen the marker on the map for the zoo, and my trail guide promised a chance to see lions, tigers, and bears, and I thought “Oh my…”  I walked up to the animal cages and bore witness to the single most depressing thing on the trail, either before or since.  The “zoo” was a circular enclosure, surrounded by high fences, with several small cages, though small is a generous term in this instance.  There were bears, two large, sad looking grizzlies, who barely moved as I approached, and at least two lions, who seemed to be sleeping.  I circled the enclosure, taking pictures and thinking of ways that I could save the poor creatures from their imprisonment.  When I reached the far side, a large tiger stood watching me from his cage.  He was active, pacing back and forth in a cage barely large enough to allow him three steps in any direction, and watched me expectantly, as if I offered him something.  I took a picture of him, and said goodbye, before walking back to the road.  It was depressing, and part of me wished I hadn’t gone to see them in the first place.

Sad Tiger
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When my parents arrived, Speedy and I loaded in, and my parents cracked the windows.  We both smelled like hikers, that is to say, bad, but it was good to see my family again, and as we drove to Big Bear, I handed Smeagol over to my dad, who took him out, identified him as a her, and a pocket mouse, and then held her the whole drive in.  She was alive, though barely, and in good hands finally. I’d done my job.

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